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King's English out of favor with Bible readers

Since colonial days, the King James Version of the Bible has been standard Scripture for American Protestants. Translated from the original Hebrew and Greek by scholars appointed by King James I of England, it was published in 1611, in the same decade the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Its vocabulary is that of early modern English, similar to that used by William Shakespeare, in whose lifetime the King James Version appeared.

But now, as the King James Version nears its 400th anniversary, it is beginning to lose its appeal _ a casualty of a video-oriented generation that cannot understand words such as "thee" and "thou," "folly" and "farthing."

That is the finding of a recent poll on Americans' Bible-reading habits by Barna Research Group Ltd. of Glendale, Calif. And it is a message that George Barna, the company's president, said church pastors ought to heed if they hope to keep their flocks from sliding into biblical illiteracy.

Barna's random national survey of 600 adults shows that of those who read the Bible, the King James Version is most popular with people 65 years old and older.

Readership of the King James declines with age, to the point that among Bible readers younger than 27, fewer than one in five use that version, the survey found.

Barna said the trend indicates that the King James Version is slipping "beyond the literacy level" of a growing number of young Americans, whose "comfort level" with any sort of reading is lower than that of their parents and grandparents.

"It's important for church leaders to understand . . . we're asking people to read something (that some people) don't have the skills to read," Barna said. But, he added, pastors ought "not to make the assumption that because people are not reading the Bible, they don't want to read it."

Younger Bible readers, according to the survey, appear to be turning to much more recent _ and simpler _ translations of the Bible, such as the New International Version, first published in the 1970s, Barna said.

Because of a surge in new translations since World War II, there is no shortage of easier-to-read Bibles.

The simplest of all is in the works, called the Contemporary English Version (CEV), which is written at about a fourth-grade reading level. The New York-based American Bible Society already has published a CEV New Testament and plans to issue a complete Bible by 1995.

"We're clearly getting the message that people find it readable, understandable and clear," said David Burke, director of the Bible society's department of translations and Scripture resources.

"We're aiming to reach younger people or people for whom English is a second language or people who don't have a background in church" or who have never read the Bible, he said.

Besides the CEV, the society publishes eight translations of the Bible, including the King James, which Burke said remains a strong seller. "We know there are segments of the Bible-reading public that prefer the King James Version," he said, adding that it was the Bible he grew up with.

To help modern readers, the King James that the Bible society publishes comes with a lengthy word list that provides present-day definitions of terms used in the text whose meanings have changed significantly since King James' day, Burke said.

As an example, he cites the word "let," which meant to block or hinder back in 1611, quite different from its modern definition.